Alibates Flint has long been recognized as one of the most important lithic resources on the plains. Its location and context as part of the Alibates Formation of Permian Age is important not only for the flint, but also in the topography along the Canadian River Breaks and as a marker bed easily recognized in surface deposits.
The use of the Alibates Flint continued throughout the prehistoric period,
and continues in the present, both as a source of historic interest and as a
lithic source used by rock collectors. The site can easily be visited by guided
Soon after my arrival at Alibates Flint Quarries and Texas Panhandle Culture
National Monument in the winter of 1975, Mr. Ed Day, Park Technician and guide
to the Alibates Flint Quarries introduced me to Alibates Flint. At that time,
the national monument officially included only 79 acres, though it was the
larger area of around 1000 acres that were designated. It was only some years
later that the remainder of the national monument was transferred from the
Bureau of Reclamation to the National Park Service.
By the spring of 1976, Ed and I were out on sites in various areas around the
lake. Though my background was in natural history, I quickly understood the
importance of flint and other sharp-edged stones to prehistoric peoples.
The use of Alibates Flint (also known as Agatized Dolomite, Alibates Chert,
and Alibates Agate,) began at least as early as the Clovis Mammoth Hunter period
of 11,500 to 11,000 years ago. Though it is becoming clearer that there were
earlier cultures than the Clovis people; no association of the flint with
earlier cultures has been found.
Alibates Flint is found in relatively localized spots, mostly in the Texas
Panhandle, and concentrated along the Canadian River from Devil’s Canyon to
Alibates Creek and Plum Creek. Other outcrops may be present near Borger, but
these have not been confirmed. The largest concentration of quarries is found
within the authorized boundaries of the 1300 acre Alibates Flint Quarries,
though a large number of quarries are also present on private land in the Plum
Creek area. In addition to these outcrops in the Texas Panhandle, an outcrop
near Yeso New Mexico is very similar in color and texture to Alibates Flint and
may represent a westward extension of the Permian Alibates Formation into New
Mexico. Also in Oklahoma, the mostly buried Day Creek Dolomite may be a
stratigraphic equivalent of the Alibates Formation.
The flint is always found as a secondary deposit in dolostone. The Alibates
formation is an easily recognized outcrop of light gray dolostone formed in
tropical shallow seas in the late Permian period about 260 million years ago. It
forms ridges and ledges all along the Canadian River, and occasionally outcrops
to the south along some of the Red River system, though no report of the
occurrence of silica in these rocks has been forthcoming. Due to downwarping of
the sediments along faults and to salt dissolution in the subsurface, the
dolostone does not form a continuous bed through the area, but comes and goes as
it sinks to the level of the creek beds, or remains as the caprock along the
The Canadian Breaks area owes its rough broken scenery to the horizontal
location of the Alibates Formation. Where the formation is present as a
continuous bed, it forms high shelves and ridges that cause the higher cliffs
along the canyon walls above the river floodplain. Where, due to salt
dissolution or faulting, the Alibates formation is at lower levels, it may form
rolling hills with scattered dolostone boulders or it may be the creek bed of
streams and arroyos. Many of the streambeds are formed along dissolution
valleys, and therefore, drainages follow these downwarps and determine the
position of valleys, arroyos, and probably the Canadian River as well.
The Alibates Formation is actually two separate dolostone units often
separated by a redbed of four or five feet in thickness. The upper dolostone
unit is the lesser in thickness, often being only about two feet thick and may
be absent at some localities. The lower bed is variable in thickness and ranges
from three to nearly ten feet in thickness. (Bowers p. 21) Both overlying and
beneath the dolostone are outcrops of redbeds. Those above the Alibates
formation are currently called the Dewey Lake Formation, though earlier works
often call these beds the Quartermaster formation. (Boyd 1987) These beds are
usually laminated sandstones and are more compact than those below the Alibates
The redbeds extend downwards from the Alibates in what is most likely the San
Andreas Formation, which was earlier known as the Whitehorse Formation. (Wilson)
This series of mostly unconsolidated redbeds is composed of shales and mudstones
with some thicker beds of heavy red or red-brown sandstone. At places there are
interbedded beds of bluish-gray clay up to ten inches thick that probably
represents periods of flooding on a nearby landmass into a tropical estuary.
The origin of both the dolostone and the chert are somewhat problematic in
that both dolomite and chert are often replacement products in an original
limestone bed. Both the dolomite (which forms the dolostone), and the chert
(which forms the Alibates Flint) are therefore younger than the original
limestone, but it is difficult to determine just how much younger either is.
In the past, it has been suggested that the flint formed as a replacement
product in the dolostone. The other possibility is that they formed at the same
time. Localized structures within the rock such as agatized breccia and boxwork
indicate that the chert is younger than the dolostone. The question therefore
becomes: how much younger? It would appear that there are two possibilities: One
is that the source of the silica is quite recent; derived from the Pleistocene
volcanic ash erupted from the Yellowstone Caldera just 600,000 years ago. This
is refuted by the inclusion of cobbles of Alibates chert in older Ogallala
Formation Beds. It is therefore likely that the sandstones of the Ogallala
formation are the source of silica for the Alibates Flint. This is also seen in
the outcrops of Tecovas Jasper in the Coetas Creek area, which must also derive
from Ogallala beds.
In addition to the primary outcrops of Alibates Flint, there are also large
amounts of Alibates in the Pleistocene and older gravels which often form a thin
layer over the tops of the hills along the Canadian River Breaks. (Etchieson
1979 p. 50) These cobbles of chert were often carried by erosion into the nearby
drainages and out into the Canadian River Valley. It is likely that before the
outcrops of chert were discovered by the prehistoric peoples, that they used the
gravels as their primary lithic source. Indeed some of the Archaic peoples may
have preferred the chert from the gravels due to ease of collection.
The earliest use of the Alibates flint is associated with the Clovis Mammoth
Hunters at Blackwater Draw in New Mexico and in the Texas Panhandle, the kill
site near Miami, Texas. This period is dated through radiocarbon dating to
between 11,000 and 11,500 years ago or near the end of the Pleistocene Ice age.
The next culture associated with Alibates flint is the Paleo Bison hunters who
hunted the now extinct Bison antiquus. Variously named cultures from
Folsom to Plainview have been named in this period, which may extend to 6000
years ago. (Hughes n.d.)
The following altithermal period, when conditions may have been at their
driest during the last 12,000 years, is a period of very little activity in the
Texas Panhandle. A few sites with Clear Fork gouges have been found near Lake
Meredith, which may represent this Early Archaic period. It is believed that
during this period, the former giant bison were replaced with the more modern
variety, as at around 4000 years ago, evidence of Bison bison becomes
more common. This late archaic period is characterized by the use of oval
knives, corner notched dart points, and scrapers made of Alibates Flint.
In the early NeoIndian period, the Woodland and Palo Duro cultures are
represented by corner-notched arrow and dart points and by pottery. The Palo
Duro period is perhaps earlier, and is characterized by deeply corner-notched
points and heavy brownware pottery. The Woodland culture has cord-marked ware
and corner notched arrowpoints with the corners only moderately notched.
The later NeoIndian period is the period of the Plains Village Indians;
represented in our area by the Antelope Creek Focus of the Panhandle Aspect.
These were sedentary gardeners, who also exploited the abundant buffalo
population in the area. They used Alibates Flint for side-notched arrowpoints,
scrapers, oval and Harahey knives, awls, spokeshaves, drills, and other tools.
The Alibates Dolomite was used by these people as metates or grinding stones,
with the metaquartzite from the gravels as the most common form of mano. Trade
to the west was established, with Obsidian from the Jemez Mountains, painted
pottery from Pecos and other eastern New Mexican pueblos, and turquoise being
the typical western trade items. The Pueblo groups also served as intermediaries
for Olivella seashell beads from the Sea of Cortez.
Other trade routes may have extended both north and south as seashells from
the Gulf of Mexico and Catlinite pipestone from Minnesota have been found in the
Antelope Creek villages. It is felt that many of the quarries were originally
excavated by the Plains Village cultures. Certainly, these people were sedentary
dwellers of the High Plains at a time when it is known that Alibates Flint was
being traded in abundance. Furthermore, much flint is associated with these
village sites, which indicates an intense use of the quarries at this time.
To suggest that Alibates Flint is the best lithic resource, or that it was
carried from the present quarries to localities all across North America may be
somewhat of an exaggeration. First of all, flint similar to Alibates Flint has
been washed down the drainages as far to the southeast as the Wichita River.
(Witte) Second, other flints were possibly as much used, or as much exploited,
but their color patterns are so similar that it is difficult to determine the
full extent of the distribution. A third problem comes from the similarity of
Alibates to other cherts occurring elsewhere. Tecovas Jasper can be very similar
to Alibates and it may also have a large distribution. The Yeso Quarries in New
Mexico also have similarly colored flint and this deposit may represent a
lateral extension of the Alibates formation. Quarries in Colorado and Alabama
have red or yellow flint, which could easily be mistaken for Alibates. To make
matters worse, I have been told by local people that they have carried Alibates
Flint with them on vacations and scattered it at Indian Ruins throughout the
Southwest. This means that southwestern records of Alibates distribution must be
questioned unless from a definable archeological context.
The Protohistoric period is characterized by thin micaceous pottery left by
the ProtoApaches and possibly unnotched arrowpoints. During this period, the
Alibates Flint was traded to the Pueblos in New Mexico, and used by the Apaches
locally. It may have formed a major part of the basis of trade at this period.
In the historic period, with the advent of steel tools, the use of Alibates
and other lithic resources has declined. Flint was still often preferred for
hide scrapers even into the historic times, but knives and arrowpoints soon were
replaced with steel.
In excavations at the 1874 Battle of Adobe Walls site in Hutchinson County,
gunflints of Alibates Flint were found. In 1976 during a flintlock rifle
demonstration, one of the participants was using Alibates Flint and got 100
shots per flint as compared with 30 to 40 from English and French flints.
This brings up the nature of the flint in the making of tools. Alibates Flint
is not the easiest lithic source for chipping qualities. This honor has to go to
obsidian, which chips much more easily. Even in comparison with other cherts,
Alibates Flint is more difficult to chip. It is felt, however, that the extra
effort was well worth the time spent in tool manufacture, due to the utility,
beauty, and durability of Alibates in relation to other cherts.
The Alibates Flint Quarries are situated along ridges and down into lower
hillsides in both the Alibates Creek Drainage and Plum Creek. These quarries
form small pits ranging in size from about five feet across to perhaps twenty
feet or more across.
It is difficult to tell just how these quarries were dug. There is little
doubt that tools similar to those known for gardening were used. We find bison
tibia digging stick tips, which were fitted onto a stick for digging. We have
also found bison scapula hoes or shovels and buffalo horn cores that could have
been used for digging. Once the outcrop was located, the excavators evidently
moved back from the weathered edge and dug to expose unweathered rock. We next
find large hammerstones, the size of a bowling ball, which were evidently the
sledgehammers of the period, used to shear off the largest flakes. We then find
small potter quartzite hammerstones, which were used to shape up the larger
cores and deer antler, billets and tines used to get the final shaping. In some
quarries it is known that deer antlers were found in the bottom of the pit,
presumably used to pry off the flint from the outcrop.
Evidently the rough shaping was done at the quarry site to reduce the amount
of refuse taken off site. At the villages, the rough trade blanks were further
shaped, or perhaps packaged in leather bags or baskets for transport to other
No excavations have been reported within the quarry area in recent times,
though we have a map which shows a large square and the statement "used
1937." Studer is believed to have excavated this large quarry site, but no
report or notes have been located.
Today, tours can be arranged into the Alibates Flint Quarries by contacting
the National Park Service in Fritch. Tours consist of a short three-mile drive,
followed by a round trip hike of less than one mile round trip up the hill and
into the quarry area.
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History and Lore of Alibates Flint